An Interview with Darlene Slaughter, VP & Chief People Officer, March of Dimes
To learn more about the series Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, click here.
Darlene Slaughter, Vice President and Chief People Officer, March of Dimes
Adaptable. Passionate. Understanding.
Tell me about your current role?
As the Chief People Officer at March of Dimes in Arlington, Virginia, I am responsible for Human Resources, Talent Engagement, Learning and Development and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It is an honor to be in this role and work for an organization with an important mission of supporting healthy moms and strong babies. Did you know that about a half million babies are born prematurely or with birth defects in the United States each year?
Our organization is fighting for healthy families through advocacy and research to support maternal health. It’s hard to believe that women and babies are not surviving childbirth and that number is four times higher for women of color in this country. (Darlene Slaughter pictured above.)
In my role, I work with leaders and employees around engagement and culture, creating an environment for all to be successful throughout the employee life cycle.
What are some of your career highlights?
Highlights…. there have been so many since I’ve been working for a long time. In all the jobs I have had I have never literally sat down and planned out this is what I wanted to do. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities placed in front of me and fortunate to recognize those opportunities and say yes to them. While I did not have a direct plan, each job and role has built upon the other and has played to my strengths. Each role has also brought new challenges and learnings that have helped me to continue to grow.
One recent opportunity was to mentor an International Fellow who was in a program run by the State Department. This led to me being invited to Cairo, Egypt to facilitate diversity and inclusion conversations. Other highlights include being able to consult, speaking opportunities like this and at a variety of conferences, and just being able to help others in the field who are looking at how to move the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Wow. I want to say the quiet storm. That’s a really interesting question. At the end of the day it’s really about preserving an individual’s respect and their dignity. I’m thinking of news headlines to make you read it. Each individual continuing to have their dignity and respect is always in the back of my mind even in the hardest conversations. How do you make sure you maintain someone’s dignity and respect? How do you become a force for change and remain calm through the process? I think it’s being that quiet storm that demonstrates dignity and respect.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I like turning people’s perspectives around. Having conversations with people and getting them to think differently or have a different view of the world than what they might currently have. That could be an individual thinking about themselves differently. I find many times that with women – especially women of color – there’s a lot of self-doubt. Young women are unsure what their direction is and spend a lot of time getting tied up in knots. I find one of the challenges I like is helping people to unravel when they are all tied up, which is basically coaching.
I also like new opportunities where people say you don’t want to be involved in that, or it’s not going to work in your favor, because it challenges me to then work to make that story not true – within reason. A lot of times in my career people told me I didn’t want to work for that person, or be on that project, or get associated with that employee. Those situations present themselves as challenges that I work to show are not true assessments. I can see past the problems and see the opportunities.
We have tendencies to judge and write people off. I spend time with people that others may not. In my perspective, it’s my time and I get to choose what I do with my time. What message does it send as leaders if we are not spending our time with those who look up to us? I’ve always made myself available to those who didn’t think they were important enough, which means I say yes to a lot of moments which lead to success.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
One book I tell people to read is Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace by Carla Harris. I’m a Carla fan and I like what she’s written because she’s an African-American female with a significant career on Wall Street, which is a male dominant field. She’s down to earth and the advice is simple. It’s not anything you don’t know, but the way in which she communicates is step by step and from the voice of a Black woman. You could read it in a couple hours and walk away with new strategies to try. I recently gave the book to a young woman that I worked with and she called to tell me that was the best career advice that she had ever gotten. Today, she is in a new role and doing well. I call that success!
Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
My own values in tension is a matter of how our values change as we grow – we value different things as we grow. The value of money and what money does or doesn’t do has changed as I have gotten older and wiser. As I transition into new roles, the value of money helps me get clear on purpose, meaning, and where I want to go. It forces me to look to the future. The tension is really about lifestyle and legacy. By answering what I want to do for the rest of my life, money becomes a vehicle to help create that vision.
Whenever I have felt tension in my career – tension between myself and an organization – it has always been a transformative moment and became a moment of clarity for what I stood for. This is an interesting question because I think of myself as strong-willed, flexible and adaptable in dealing with a variety of situations. In my career there have been moments where there was a line in the sand that was not necessarily visible until it hit up against the value. We don’t always know what we stand for, but when something pushes up against our values it leads to questions of what we are willing to sacrifice. A few times in my career, I’ve been standing at that line and not willing to sacrifice for what someone else wanted to impose upon me.
In that particular moment, I decided it was time to move on since things were changing. I typically find myself in new opportunities which is good, but not always planned. There’s a sense of clarity and what happens for many people is that you don’t follow that sense of clarity and end up staying in a place longer than need be. That’s when your values get compromised and you sacrifice yourself. It’s a very interesting feeling to get mad at yourself. It’s not always about external people being disappointed in us; we can become disappointed in ourselves. The tension is there to provide clarity for what’s most important.
Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
Early in my career when I was a rising star (I don’t see myself as a rising star at this point even though I am still growing as I take on new assignments; I see myself as the wings for others to rise), I was tired. It felt like I was doing so much and just busy…so busy that it was only about work and the social side of life was not happening. Two things happened: I took a two-week vacation for the first time. I was depleted, but recharged and discovered that I needed to be true to who I was and operate in that space when I returned to work. It was a very interesting thing for me. I gave myself permission to operate in the way that was going to work best for me which meant working best for the organization. That changed so many things.
Shortly after, I was able to attend a workshop called Power Lab via NTL. Power Lab was all about how individuals use our power or give it up to others. An example of that is telling people no and wondering what they will think if you don’t say yes. You have the power to say no and don’t need to justify it. I learned that being true to myself and grounded, in the way I worked with people, I became more aware of my own power inside organizations and used that power. If I change how I show up then that’s a conscious choice that I make. I still own it; it’s still mine. I’m not being forced to be different and that allowed me to have difficult conversations, talk to a variety of people, make myself available for others who thought they didn’t matter. I’m conscious of people who think they don’t have a voice in the workplace and showing them that they do and how to use effectively.
What’s your approach to self-care?
Shopping. (Laughter.) My self-care is being very low-key. I don’t do a whole lot on the weekends. My son is a young man now and I’m very comfortable being home and not being in the thick of a lot of things. I love cruises and activities where I can be one with the ocean. You just see the world in a calm kind of way without it being a storm but very powerful and serene. That’s why I said the quiet storm; it can be hidden then seen at a moment’s notice.
The other way is not using all my energy to be on all the time. I take breaks and am okay with taking a break. Spending time reflecting on what was and what will be is necessary.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Take more risks. When I look at my younger self, I could have taken more risks. I could have traveled more, especially internationally. The things that we think have meaning really don’t, so we talk ourselves out of a lot of opportunities. We think something is keeping us from the next level that really isn’t. Most times it our own limiting thoughts.
Seek out opportunities that stretch your boundaries. There was a spiritual workshop that I really wanted to attend, but I didn’t have someone to go with me. I went alone and made it a weekend adventure of exploration in California. I saw whales and did the things I wanted to do. It was the best time and I learned a lot about myself!
Say yes more than you say no. I said yes to this interview because another woman of color is trying to make a difference in the world. I get a lot of phone calls from people I don’t know seeking advice and help. When I see someone, who looks like me trying to make a difference in the world, it’s an opportunity that isn’t about me but who else will be impacted. I love supporting women and women of color.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
I would say Black women are diamonds in the rough and the social sector is missing an opportunity to move beyond. I recall something Oprah said when she opened her school in South Africa: if you want to make a difference and change the world, then you educate Black women. One of the things instinctively in our culture and how we are socialized is when a difference is made for us, we will make a difference for others. Black women will cast a very wide net in the community to make it a better place for all.
Black people help the world have a conscious. Many times, we are the frontrunners and a mirror –a consciousness for society, for organizations, for nonprofits. Working at United Way Worldwide and now the March of Dimes, workforces must begin to reflect the communities that they serve. People of color want to see themselves reflected in these organizations. I can open doors and walk through doors that many cannot which gives me the responsibility to give back.
Black women and people of color in the world can do a tremendous amount of work to support organizations and initiatives, but don’t get asked to be at the decision-making table. The social sector needs to understand that Black women have capacity, determination, and intellectual abilities that can be tapped. We need to be seen as viable throughout the organization from leaders to staff. We have a voice and a power that needs to be seen and heard.